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Henri-Georges Clouzot Directs Herbert von Karajan

Friday, January 13th, 2017

In the 1960s, the conductor Herbert von Karajan and director Henri-Georges Clouzot made history.

As Linda Perkins notes on her website dedicated to the work of Herbert von Karajan, “in the mid-1960’s von Karajan collaborated with the French film director, Henri-Georges Clouzot. The filmed concerts they made together had rehearsals, workshop sessions with students and interviews added as they were originally transmitted as television programs for a series entitled ‘Die Kunst des Dirigierens’ (‘The Art of Conducting’).

The series was originally going to consist of 13 films but only 5 were actually made: Beethoven’s  Symphony No. 5 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 [both with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Karajan’s orchestra for decades], Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Yehudi Menuhin as the soloist; Schumann’s Symphony No 4, again with the Vienna Symphony, and Verdi’s Requiem Mass with the La Scala Orchestra.”

Henri-Georges Clouzot was a highly idiosyncratic and highly individualistic film director, whose most famous films, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1954)  are some of the most brutal films in French cinema. Yet he had an interest in documentary films as well, as evidenced by his direction of The Mystery of Picasso (1956), which I wrote about in the film journal Senses of Cinema.

But his films with Karajan are much more austere; unlike the Picasso film, they’re in black and white, shot in 35mm film, with immaculate cinematography by the great Armand Thirard, and one is stunned by their casual brilliance. Karajan is dressed rather informally, and conducts with his eyes closed, as he usually did, as if in a trance, and the members of the orchestra follow his direction unfailingly. In the film shown here, Karajan conducts Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

Hearing and seeing Karajan at the height of his powers, effortlessly conducting a piece that has become over time something of a concert hall staple, yet still managing to make it seem both fresh and immediate, is an overwhelming experience. These films offer us something more than a window to the past; they give us a concrete example of absolutely first rate orchestral precision, captured by Clouzot with efficiency and directness. This is cinema at its most essential.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film; an amazing experience.

The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur)

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Charles Vanel and Yves Montand in The Wages of Fear

Think you know what suspense filmmaking is? Not until you’ve seen Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur, 1953), still, after more than sixty years, the film to beat for white knuckle suspense. Indeed, it’s one of the indispensable works of the cinema, and if you haven’t seen it — well, you should stop reading this and get the DVD right away.

Henri-Georges Clouzot was an acerbic, brutal filmmaker; during the Nazi occupation of France, while some of his colleagues were making positive, upbeat films that urged both resistance and reassurance, Clouzot was making Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943), about poison pen letters in a small French village, a film seemingly designed to give aid and comfort to the enemy. After the war, Clouzot was banned from filmmaking until 1947, but soon after re-entered the industry, and in 1952, shot Le Salaire de la peur, which remains — along with Les Diaboliques (1955) — his signature film.

In a South American hellhole of literally indescribable filth and squalor, Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli) and Bimba (Peter Van Eyck) sweat it out day after day, penniless, willing to do almost anything to get a ticket home to France. But there’s no work, no hope, no nothing — you can practically smell the stench of the place emanating from the screen.

Finally, a desperate “out” emerges. The SOC Oil Company has an oil well fire on its hands deep in the jungle, and puts out a call to hire four drivers to haul huge shipments of highly unstable, deteriorating nitroglycerine in trucks with lousy brakes and no suspension over treacherous mountain roads — if one of the trucks gets through, the company will have enough explosives to cap the well. If any of the drivers make it, they get a trip back to Paris. All four men compete for — and get — the job.

The trucks are completely unsafe, the nitroglycerine is so unstable that even the slightest shock will set it off, and the roads offer one obstacle after another. The film takes about 40 minutes to set up the situation, but then for the rest of the 147 minute ride, we follow the trucks on their desperate voyage through the jungle, every nerve-wracking step of the way.

When Jean Cocteau saw The Wages of Fear, he immediately recognized it for the masterpiece it was, and as President that year of the jury at Cannes, saw to it that the film won the Grand Prize of the Festival in 1953– despite the surprising opposition of Fritz Lang, also on the jury, who, if you ask me, was simply jealous (see my essay on Cocteau’s role in this, “How Will I Get My Opium?,” in the book Bad: Infamy, Darkness, Evil, and Slime on Screen for more detail).

It should be noted that The Wages of Fear was cut by about 15 minutes after the win at Cannes for US distribution, to remove what were perceived as “anti-American” sentiments — and it’s true; Clouzot’s absolute fatalism and complete misanthropy demonstrates that he had little faith in anyone or anything — but the current Criterion release thankfully offers the original, complete film.

All in all, The Wages of Fear is nearly flawless filmmaking; a remake by William Friedkin, Sorcerer (1977), only demonstrated just how good the original film was, and remains; Clouzot’s career was relatively short, but in this film, he made one of the lasting masterpieces of the cinema.

See a clip from the film above by clicking on the image, or here.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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